Posted by: Rob Viens | February 12, 2013

Happy Birthday Charlie!

February 12th marks Darwin’s 204th birthday – but on this day in 1833, young Charlie turned 24. I still have to remind myself just how young Darwin was as he traveled the world, and just how much he had already grown after a little over a year at sea.

How Darwin celebrated his birthday is unknown, as there are no entries in his diary today. I suppose, you might say he gave himself the day off from writing – but I suspect that would not really be a “present” for him. There are no correspondence, though I have no doubt his sisters were thinking fondly of him that day from the other end of the Earth (see last year’s birthday message from his sister at Darwin Day Part II).

young Darwin

I was preparing I talk today in honor of Darwin Day 2013 and it really got me thinking about the significance of this first year on the Beagle. The more I thought about it, the more I came to think that this may have been one of the most, if not the most, important year in Darwin’s life. It was a year of tremendous growth in several areas of this life which resulted in a major transformation. He grew in several areas:

From a boy, to a man: This sounds cliché but Darwin left England a relatively spoiled, wealthy boy.  He went shooting whenever he wanted to, hung out with friends, took regular horseback rides, and never took his “studies” very seriously.  Don’t get me wrong – he was not a heading into a life of crime or anything, but he was most likely headed to a life involving a quite parsonage (like his cousin William Fox -see My Dear Old Fox) or a sort of “playboy” lifestyle  (like his brother, Erasmus). After a year of living on the Beagle away from the safety of his family, Darwin had really matured and taken on the characteristics of a young man.

From an individual, to a part of something larger: Darwin’s writings about his youth don’t suggest that he was a solitary child. On the contrary, he was probably doted on by his sisters and enjoyed spending time with his brother and friends.  But it seems that during his time on the Beagle he grew to be a part of something bigger.  He left England belittling the sailors who had gone a little too wild on Christmas day (and paid for it with painful punishment).  But after being initiated by crossing the equator, living and working beside the crew for a year, and making friends with the officers, he had became a part of the crew.  Some of his actions over the past month – such as helping out during the severe weather in Drake Passage and heroically saving the whale boats from a ice-generated wave in the Beagle Channel (see How Darwin Became a Hero) – really bring this point home.

From a collector, to a naturalist and a scientist: For all practical purposes, before he left England I would have considered Darwin a “collector”.  Yes, he had done some research work at Edinburgh, but he was really passionate about collecting more species of beetles than his friends (see An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles).  I think quote from his Autobiography sums it up best:

“But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow.” (Autobiography)

He was good at making observations and recognizing the smallest differences between different beetles or rocks or flowers.  But, as he put it so well, he did not look for any meaning in his collections.

If following Darwin for a year has taught me anything, it is that when he went out “into the field” (in Cape Verde or Brazil or Tierra del Fuego), he really blossomed.  He still “collected” but he started to really observe behavior and function. He dissected flatworms and lighting bugs (see Tolerably Contented with Planaria), be looked for cause and effect, he tried to explain why fossil bones looked similar to, but yet different from modern species (see The Bones of an Idea), and he speculated on the slight modifications of tropical species compared to their northern counterparts (see “Cotyledons” of a Theory).  He had become a true naturalist – a path that would ultimately have him returning to England as a well-respected scientist.

I remain ever convinced that had the Beagle voyage never occurred, Darwin would never have become the great scientist and “revolutionary” that he was destined to become.  All the “ingredients” were there, be just needed the catalyst of the Beagle to bring them all together.

Happy Darwin Day!  (RJV)

PS: Appropriately this is a milestone for me, too – my 300th post!

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